On May 25, 1896 C. E. James, prominent businessman and land developer donated a tract of land, including a spring, for the purpose of creating a public park. By July 4, of that same year, the East Lake Park was officially dedicated.
Two years later, in 1898, a zoo was opened and named to honor Col. F. G. Oxley of Bridgeport Alabama who had donated $500 toward the project. Newspaper accounts from the time include illustrations of the interior of the zoo building, listing a large variety of animals, including many exotic animals. In many cases the animals collected by the zoo were donated by individuals.
The expense of keeping the animals and improving the grounds caused a dispute between the City Aldermen and the Parks Commission (which had just been established). The Aldermen claimed the Parks Commission had no right to spend money maintaining a park so far from the city. A solution came in the form of an arrangement with a private citizen who had already been assisting with improvements at the park.
In 1899 the property was "leased without profit" to George M. Bradt., Chattanooga native and owner of a successful printing company. There were several lease stipulations: the land had to remain a free public park, otherwise responsibility for the land would return to the city; the park's greenhouses were required to provide the city with plants for it's landscaping needs throughout the city ; and Bradt could only charge a small entry fee for the zoo building.
Later the city decided to take over responsibility for the park again, and in 1903 the Chattanooga Board of Commissioners announced new additions to the Oxley Zoo collection and planned park improvements. On May 8, 1906, over 5,000 attended the opening day ceremonies; drawing attention to the need for more public parks.
Other major events for the park and zoo:
In 1908 the lake was reported to be stocked with over 1 million goldfish. In fact, sales of goldfish from the lake were $200, almost enough to pay for maintenance of the park. One article reported that, "Pelly" a pelican and a black swan, "Hobo", were consuming several pounds of fish daily. The lake was also stocked with pearl fish and black bass.
By 1911 the buildings in the park as well as the aging collection of zoo animals were drawing negative attention. In 1915, after visiting the facilities, one City Commissioner declared the animals decrepit and the buildings unsanitary. The city decided it would be too costly to replace the animals and rebuild. The city disposed of the animals and tore down the buildings. The current Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park replaced Oxley Zoo.
In 1945 an attempt to get more visitors to East Lake Park included stocking the spring fed man made lake with a variety of waterfowl. There was a beautification project in 1969 that included draining the lake and removing sludge. During the project fish were housed down the street in the Warner Park swimming pool.
A 1980s collaboration with TVA, aimed at saving energy, encouraged fishing in the lake. The idea was if fishermen did not have to drive to fish, but could fish in the neighborhood, less fuel for traveling would be used. Although the lake was then fully stocked, just a few years later, there was an unexplained fish-kill.
Also during the 1980s a huge playground project was quite the attention getter; it was known as "USS East Lake" . The Senior Citizens Building was added to the park in 1990.
Efforts to convert the lake from a "concrete bowl" to a more "naturally balanced" lake for fishing began in 1996. The TWRA, TVA, and the City worked together to create a fish friendly lake. In 1999 new design plans for the 17.2 acre park were drawn up with a variety of improvements to be completed over 10 years.
This history of Chattanooga's first public park and Oxley zoo was compiled from newspaper clippings housed in the Local History & Genealogy Dept. of the Chattanooga Public Library. The photographs come from various collections also housed in the Department. Many historic photos are available for viewing through the Library's online catalog.